The National Security Agency (NSA) is accused of eavesdropping on people’s phone and email conversations and some NSA employees have used their power to spy on their lovers. The new health insurance exchanges, a key part of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., “Obamacare”) and which millions of Americans will soon be using, may lack essential data privacy protections. The Department of Justice has been spying on journalists. Users of Gmail were told that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”

All these revelations, scandals, and scenarios combine to make it a tough time to be in the data business, even though some, like the Gmail statement, were taken completely out of context, and almost all the stories of privacy intrusion were of government intruding on the privacy of citizens (or non-citizens), not of private companies and organizations intruding on the privacy of consumers.

Survey says
As reported by Ad Week, one of the most recent surveys on consumer privacy attitudes, from Annalect, found that “After seven weeks of steady media coverage, the percentage of Internet users worried about their online privacy jumped 19 percent, from 48 percent in June (when the story first appeared in The Guardian and Washington Post) to 57 percent in July.” The survey also found that 31 percent of respondents were taking some kind of action to better protect their privacy as a result of the summer privacy hubbub (especially the NSA), such as adjusting their Internet browser settings, disabling cookies, or researching other ways to protect their privacy.

Privacy anxiety didn’t just begin with the privacy scandal summer. Another big survey released in early June also found consumer privacy anxiety (although one should always read privacy-related surveys with a grain of salt).

Why should you care? Upticks in consumer privacy anxiety have a tendency to hurt respondent cooperation, whether or not the survey, opinion and marketing research profession had anything to do with the uptick. Consumers do not necessarily distinguish. Indeed, consumers have been fed a number of media stories claiming or implying that if it weren’t for data companies collecting everyone’s personal information, the NSA would not have been able to spy on everyone. There were even some calls for restrictions on data mining and the technical use of metadata by private companies, as an indirect way to prevent spying by the government.

Cost/benefit calculations for respondents
Luckily, all is not lost in the respondent cooperation situation. As Andy Marken pointed out in Alert! magazine (2nd quarter 2013), “People around the globe are more than willing to share their personal information as long as there’s something in it for them. The more the benefits, the more information they’ll share.”

Of course, that is a much easier solution for companies in the advertising and marketing space than those in marketing research. The benefits of participating in research studies are usually more ephemeral. Moreover, respondent incentives can present their own legal headaches when regulators determine that a respondent receiving an incentive is an employee of a research company and some Members of Congress oppose the use of respondent incentives, believing that they are being used to buy preferred research results.

Online behavioral tracking and big data are among the most intriguing roads to take to circumvent the respondent cooperation decline, but either route can be hazardous. Online tracking is the subject of great debate in a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) working group, restrictive legislation in the Senate, and a likely new law in California. Big data and the “internet of things,” usually lacking any transparency, creep out consumers even more, such as when Target figured out that a teenager was pregnant before her father did. Other emerging routes can be equally problematic: Using geolocation analytics to track retail shoppers brings heat from U.S. Senators; and collecting more information than you need or intend can bring Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforcement action, as marketing research company Compete discovered.

The research profession could be in for greater challenges. Opportunities abound to harness big data, online tracking, and all manner of emerging technology to bring new and better insights to our clients, but legal, legislative and regulatory pitfalls await.

The Marketing Research Association (MRA) is ready to help. We will continue to build on our data privacy best practices for marketing research while lobbying on behalf of the research profession in Washington, DC and around the U.S. Not an MRA member? Get involved today!